It’s Okay To Be Dull
I am, apparently, an eccentric person.
My socks don’t match. My haircut is funny. I wear these strange glasses all the time. I draw boxes in the air with my hands whenever I describe something I’m excited about. I own a copy of Of Grammatology for reasons that aren’t ironic and I make my own pickles.
I’m more of a Gale than a Walter. I consider myself a fairly dull person, despite my hobbies, because the bulk of what I actually do with my time boils down to me bashing my face against a keyboard until words come out. There’s nothing externally exciting about it, but I have a lot of fun nonetheless.
But that’s alright, because being a dull person who does dull things is pretty fucking awesome.
The Dull Secret To Success
I’ve worked with quite a few young writers who look at writing as some fantastical process where their wildest imaginings take shape on the page and every book they write is supposed be some crazy act of invention. They look at the big names in genre fiction as heroes, and spend fifteen years poking at a manuscript they never finish.
Writing is an iterative process. It requires a lot of time in your chair getting your damn work done. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t exciting, and it involves very little imagination. Most writers spend more time writing emails than they do writing fiction, and fiction is only one small sliver of the writing world.
If programming is about logic, and the patience required to be logical for 8 hours a day every damn day, writing is a similar gig. Writing is about explaining complex topics with simple language for specific audiences for eight hours a day, and at the end of it your brain is just as fried.
To be a writer, you need to write (and keep writing) no matter what. You write on your good days, your bad days, and every day in between. You can’t wait for inspiration when you have deadlines and bills. A lack of motivation is just your ego acting out.
With programming, it’s relatively easy to put on your ego-blinders and work mechanically until you’re done. The work itself isn’t easy, but recognizing and adapting the right mindset needed to do the work is. For writing, there’s about sixteen tons of culturally-accreted bullshit keeps people from doing the same. People are so obsessed with being creative and imaginative that they don’t put their shoulder to the stone and push.
As it goes with most thing, the processes behind the product aren’t that interesting. They’re rewarding, yes, but they tend to be dull. You have to accept the self-imposed dullness of the methodical worker in order to write for a living, because there’s no way around it. It’s a part of the job.
To a lot of people, writing is a grand and mysterious craft practiced by eccentric people who do interesting things and know other interesting people. Writers, in all reality, are only eccentric in what lengths they go to in order to maintain their diligence, and their daily lives aren’t nearly as interesting as most people think. The secret to their methodical work isn’t how they inspire themselves, it’s how they’ve cultivated that certain level of dullness that leaves them content to do the same thing every day until something coherent is produced.
If this all sounds depressing, don’t worry. There’s a secret hiding behind all of this dullness that keeps us writers writing and you readers reading. To you, right now, dullness sounds like a bad thing. Here’s a secret:
The Pleasures Of Being Dull
The great part about being a dull person is the appreciation of nuance you develop. Like fishing, trains, photographing mailboxes, drinking expensive wine and competitive ironing, writing is a dull man’s art. It’s relaxing, frustrating, tedious, and educational. It’s an endless rabbit hole of factoids and experiences that requires time and patience to explore.
I remember wanting to write books in high school, and failing at it. Why? Because I was too invested in the idea to value the process. At various points in my life I’ve experienced the same discrepancy between desire and product with weightlifting, photography, web design, and, yes, freelancing. I was so focused on the products of these practices that I didn’t allow myself to enjoy the process. I was impatient, inconsistent, and unprofitable because I wanted the excitement of it all, without paying the dues of dullness.
As a writer, I’ve found that describing Big Ideas using Big Language is easy. Similarly, describing Small Ideas using Small Language is hard. It’s easy to be excited, it’s hard to be precise. When you’re talking about Big Ideas you can type for hours and never capture what you’re trying to say, but Small Things can be described (and understood) with just a handful of words.
Once I accepted that the process was dull, I was able to find pleasure in the nuance. Much like meditation, green tea, and slow TV, writing starts with boredom and ends with discovery. If you do it the other way ‘round, you just get lost in the middle.
I used to think that the only way I could call myself a writer was if I wrote fiction. Genre fiction, specifically. I didn’t consider journalism, let alone copywriting, a part of the position, and it took me a long time to appreciate writing things for other people. Is fiction rewarding? You bet it is. But there’s more to writing than putting your name on something.
Be A Craftsman, Not An Inventor
Everyone has heard the story of that one person who took that one class where the only thing you had to do was write what the teacher wanted to read to get a good grade. And for some reason people see that as a bad thing.
If you want to write fiction or work for journals or produce ad copy, the first thing you need to do is bring your expectations down to the level of the work you’re doing and get your ego out of the way. Write for your audience, not yourself. If all you do is feed into your own eccentricities and write something to your own satisfaction, you’re ignoring half the art.
Developing a singular voice is easy. Learning how to use multiple voices for multiple audiences, and summoning those voices on demand throughout the day as you work with various clients, isn’t. That demanding professor might be trying to teach you something you’re too stubborn to learn.
The majority of what I write is for other people, without a byline attached. It’s copy, it’s content, it’s in your ‘promotions’ folder right now. That work isn’t about me, it’s about providing value to my clients and their audience. It’s written to match their specifications and their needs, in the voice that they need. Not the voice that my ego demands.
The product of that work isn’t particularly interesting, but the process is rewarding. It’s the nuanced flow of research and note taking and drafting and revising that’s rewarding no matter the subject. It’s the dull part, and it’s fun.
Have you ever listened to a writer talk about their process? For some people, it’s as boring as the finer arts of duck calls. It’s built on Small Things, and the shiny bits are waived away as a byproduct of those Small Things because that’s what they really are.
For many writers, that sounds horrible. Writing is about creativity! They say. Writing is about self-expression! They shout. And they’re right, to a degree. But there’s a difference between spreading yourself all over the page and using just the right amount.
If you can, embrace being dull. Be the stamp collector of writers, investing yourself in Small Things with nuance and detail. Enjoy the process, take your time, be methodical, and take your ego out of it. Take the time to remove your ego from the equation, and see what you can create.
Why You Don’t Need To Be Creative To Be A Good Writer
Thanks to this frustrating thing called linguistics, the word ‘creative’ has more than one cultural interpretation. For many people, it means colorful, fantastical, and not-entirely-logical-but-nonetheless-pretty-cool. It has an implicit Dr. Seuss feel.
You don’t need to be creative in that sense. Trust me. You really don’t. It’s awesome (I like bright colors, even though I can’t see them that well), it’s cool, it’s fun, but it’s only one aesthetic within a seriously polyphonic word.
The kind of creativity that I prefer to focus on is the inter-project creativity. The ability to switch gears and change voices, which inevitably falls back on prototyping the hell out of things and then methodically refining the process. It’s the ‘dull’ kind of creativity that’s about process instead of results.
If I wrote sales copy in the same voice I wrote fiction, I’d never find work. If I wrote motivational content in the same voice I wrote sales copy, no one would take me seriously. If I wrote this article in the same voice I used yesterday, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a writer.
You don’t need to write epic things. Your books can be short, your articles can be direct, your sales copy can be honest. You can work on things that don’t scale. You don’t have to be a unicorn. “Sufficient” is an amazing trait that few people take the time to appreciate.
If people spent less time reinventing the wheel and more time making the best wheel for the terrain they’re in, the differences they’d see would be staggering. This applies to everything from startups to soup. Small situational improvements are significantly undervalued today.
As that applies to fiction, you don’t need to reinvent your genre. You don’t need to sit down at the keyboard every day with the goal of out-writing Jordan and Erikson. You don’t need to tape Sanderson’s face to the wall and stare at it every time you find a gap in your new magic system that he would have caught if the manuscript had been his.
By all means, get wild with your exploratory phase. Do anything and everything you need to hammer out your initial prototype. Feel free to wander down all of the wild and crazy paths of your imagination as you try to find the seed of truth you want to build your narrative around.
But don’t be afraid of falling back on the rote processes of refining, editing, and incrementally improving your work until you have something remarkable. Don’t be afraid of starting small. Don’t be afraid of choosing prototypes you know you can complete, so you can speed up the experimentation and focus on making that small thing amazing.
Don’t be afraid of not having big ideas and a crazy imagination. You don’t need ‘em.
Your book can be short. Your characters can be modest. Your cast can be small. You can write a thousand words about two people going for an evening walk in a small town in the middle of nowhere in particular, and be completely satisfied with it. You’re allowed to. It’s fine. It’s actually pretty fun.
My daily life is a spectacularly inglorious thing. It’s as far away from the Manic Pixie Dream Author stereotype as you can imagine. I write about small things for small audiences, and I have a wonderful time doing it. The work I do is built on a bedrock of research, keyword planning, and typing, and even though my process is a bit different for every project, the heart of it is the same. It’s simple, it’s dull, and it’s enjoyable.
Small Ideas are Amazing
Writing genre fiction is easy because you get to use really broad strokes. You get to rely on culturally ingrained imagery to set the stage for quick and engaging bouts of dialog and action. You get to write fast and have as much (if not more) fun as your readers do. But if you stereotyped a real ethnicity the same way you did a bunch of elves, the media would eat you alive.
I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. But I’m going to pick on it right now because it embodies something that a lot of young writers struggle with: Their ideas are too big and the characters are too flat. People do things, but their motivations are weak, their plans are superficial, and things don’t go wrong. The writer focuses on big world-changing events, and they don’t take the time to explore the human elements. Most genre fiction lacks the compelling smallness that defines classic literature, because its attention is latched onto large details that are shiny and easily understood.
Genre fiction comes packed with a lot of Big Ideas. Things that you can bring in as full units, and fill in the details as you need. It can take a lot of work (and world building) to pull it together, but the focus of genre fiction is aimed such that the time you spend building those Big Things pays off. It can be quick, it can be facile, and it doesn’t demand too much from the reader.
A compelling action sequence can be written in a day and edited in a week, but an argument between two mundane people can take months of effort to make real. Reading and writing intense drama is fatiguing. The emotional labor involved turns many people away from it, and readers and writers both have found that constant intense drama is hard to sustain.
I have a weakness for Chekhov’s short stories (and for all Russian literature, really) because they have this kind of hyper-realness that’s undeniably human. The narratives are small. Conflicts take place between real people. Little concern is given to absolute conclusions. They start with a kind of intentional dullness that allows for meaningful and relatable interactions to take place.
But, at the same time, I lack the endurance needed to read literary fiction every single day, let alone write it. In the same way that I couldn’t sit down with Nietzsche every day without eventually blowing a gasket and watching The Avengers, I can’t sustain the reading and writing complex works without taking a break and enjoying something facile.
There are two different kinds of complexity here, and they challenge the Big Idea/Small Idea dichotomy that I’ve been leaning on up until now. In genre fiction, the Big Idea is the setting, and it leaves little place for the small human elements that make fiction so relatable. In literary fiction, the Big Idea is the emotion and tension, leaving little space for the small pleasures of adventure and excitement.
In both of these cases, there’s something that occupies the majority of the writers attention, and an element that’s neglected or under-developed. What constitutes Big Ideas and Small Ideas is different for everyone, of course, and it’s hard to draw clear lines as to how to classify things in any kind of externally consistent way, but it does allow me to say this:
You don’t need to invest your complexity into the things you think you need to. You can use a simple plot, and invest in the relationships between your characters. You can use a simple setting, and allow complex events to take place. You can rely on simple characters to do things in an amazing world. If you’re stuck or frustrated or feeling lost, look at your Big Ideas, look at your Small Ideas, and change the balance.
These aren’t absolute things so much as they are placeholders for the predominant mode and minor mode, which can be juxtaposed in any manner of ways depending on the theme and critical approach.
The longer you write the more that scale will change, but not in a linear fashion. Some writers start with genre fiction and move away from it. Others explore the various niches and sub-genres and find themselves a comfortable home. Wherever you end up as a writer, though, there’s nothing wrong with starting with your small, and building value over time. My small isn’t your small. Sanderson’s small isn’t your small. Cook’s small isn’t your small.
And that’s perfectly fine.
It’s Okay To Be Dull
Having now written about everything from stamp collecting to genre fiction, I want to wrap up this exploration of dullness into something that might vaguely qualify as a concise conclusion. To put a point to all of this, there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing the perceived excitement of a task for the sake of balance and consistency. It’s better to be a dull writer who works with Small Ideas and produces something tangible, than it is to get stuck on Big Ideas and never deliver something worth reading.
You don’t need to be a Manic Pixie Dream Writer in order to put words on the page. All you need to do is write. You can be a plumber, a security guard, a park ranger, a desk jockey; you can be the most ‘boring’ person in the world, and still produce amazing works. Writing is about craft, not inspiration. It isn’t about how large or amazing or ‘creative’ your work is. You don’t have to write genre fiction, you don’t have to write literary fiction.
Hell, you don’t have to write fiction in the first place.
Whatever it is that you want to write, write it. Don’t be afraid of Small Ideas. Don’t be afraid of using simple plots, or simple structures in order to give yourself the space to focus on the parts you care about. Don’t let the fear of being boring or dull or unimaginative keep you from writing the things you want to write.
Just go write.